Before going to see the bangsawan show on Sunday (9 August) I attended the first half of a rehearsal by Rhythm in Bronze at the invitation of one of my MA students, who is a new member of the group and is writing her MA thesis on the company.
Rhythm in Bronze was founded in 1997 and is Malaysia's most prominent contemporary gamelan groups. In addition to playing traditional Indonesian and Malaysian pieces, members of the group write music for the ensemble and they have also worked with a number of composers to create new music. All current members are women - with the exception of a drummer (who is also a Kelantanese dalang) and a guitar player (a jobbing musician who also plays in jazz, pop and rock groups). Like most Malaysian gamelans, their instruments are tuned to a diatonic Western scale (b flat) but were made in Java.
I found their music quite charming, and at times very dramatic. Some of the musicians playing the more difficult instruments (gambang, bonang) didn't seem to exploit the full range of ornamentation and melodic development. But the enemble playing was strong, and transitions were dynamic. And the integration of the guitar was full - it was not a novelty but a core part of the group.
Despite its international reputation, the group doesn't receive core funding from the Malaysian government and depends largely on corporate gigs to underwrite concerts and commissions of new work and guest artists. In the rehearsal I was attending they were preparing to do a dinner-time engagement for a business conference or symposium of some sort. They had originally been promised a 20 minute slot but had been relegated to background music during dinner. The group's leader had said this time was suitable for 3 songs but the conference organisers insisted on the group playing 4 - 'to get their money's worth.'
Like many gamelan groups, space also is an issue. Rhythm in Bronze owns its own instruments but not its own space. It is currently 'camping out' in a large storage room in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Malaya - thanks to the good grace of the head of the department. It rehearses there regularly on Tuesday nights, with the occasional Sunday. During the rehearsal, a woman wandered by and asked if this was 'Singaporean music.' Don't know what she meant by that....